UC Review reports on Zoning Code Commission public comment

UC Review: New draft of zoning code gets an airing

Last week West Philadelphia became the first of the city’s neighborhoods to view and comment on the first draft of the newly revamped city’s zoning code.

The Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission is now seeking public comment on the changes they have made to the code which are based in part on comments from the public last year.

On February 23rd, about 50 people gathered at the Enterprise Center, 4548 Market Street, for the first of four planned Community Workshops city-wide to gauge community response to the new draft’s changes in the way the zoning code is administered.

That focus includes such matters as who should be allowed to testify at public hearings for zoning variance applications by developers, and when and where notices for such hearings should be placed.

A second round of public hearings to take a hard look at the new draft, scheduled for April, will focus on individual zoning districts, and what is and isn’t allowed in them.

The third and final module will look at development standards, such as parking, signage, landscaping, and building dimensions that builders must follow. That module is scheduled for July.

Four meetings throughout the city are scheduled for each module. Comments from all meetings this year will be considered in completing a final draft of the code.

But a re-mapping of zoning areas in the city will be done by the Commission on its own. The final version of the code is expected to be rewritten by the summer of 2011, and will then be submitted to City Council for its approval, according to Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Zoning Code Commission.

The changes were based in part on comments from public hearings last year. That process continues online with a survey at www.zoningmatters.com.

The first draft of the renewal includes such changes as allowing anybody who is affected by a zoning variance request to testify at a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the matter. Currently the rules are more restrictive than that, permitting only those parties who are substantially affected to comment.

Also allowed under the new plan is the consideration by the Philadelphia Planning Commission of neighborhood-adopted development plans in approving project proposals.

For developers who want to construct a building: for the first time, the proposed plan restricts the building size variances to 25 percent of the codified height, square footage, setback, or other dimensions, said Gladstein.

Use variances, for projects whose purpose is not allowed under the code, are discouraged in this first draft of the renewal. They would be allowed only in cases where no other reasonable use could be made of the property.

But the renewal also allows the owner of an existing non-conforming building to make improvements without obtaining a variance for a non-conforming structure.

The 31-member Zoning Code Commission, formed to rewrite the code, was established after 80 percent of voters in the 2007 city elections approved its creation. The code was last updated in 1962-63, Gladstein said.

The code exists, she added, to maintain and sustain the unique character of individual neighborhoods while also helping to bring investment to communities. It also helps to provide a consistency in construction standards and practices and “makes future construction more predictable and encourages high quality, positive development.”

Audience members, seated at tables, then formed work groups with their tablemates The Commission provided them with a list of topics and asked them to choose which topics they thought were the most important.

That list included improving readability and reorganization of variance hearing announcements, simplifying the process of zoning approvals, public involvement in the planning stage of projects, and protecting neighborhoods.

Also included were promoting sustainability, promoting quality and design, and simplifying both base districts and the zoning overlays within them.

Members of all groups were most concerned with the increased role of the neighborhoods’ involvement in approving projects, simplifying procedures of the Bureau of Licenses and Inspections, and making sure communities received proper notice of zoning variance requests by developers.

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